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A reader writes to ask if I’ve noticed the developing Mackenzie Fierceton story.

Have I ever. UD has been circling this thing for a few days, waiting for more information to be released before she blogs about it.

The much-laureled U Penn student’s last name – Fierceton? – was the first thing that seemed strange to ol’ UD. No one else has it – the only mention of it I can find appears in a translation of the ancient Chinese Classic of Mountains and Seas – a book of myths whose translator puts the name “Fierceton River” on an obscure location.

Mackenzie’s last name used to be Morrison. Here her mother, Dr. Carrie Morrison, talks about breast density. Mackenzie dropped Morrison and added the dramatic Fierceton, which is fine, even fantastic, if you want to mark your separation from your roots, your own free fierce identity or whatever.

Fierceton’s roots are what you’d expect for someone born to a prominent physician: Private schools, horseback riding, cool vacations. But she has garnered all sorts of university goodies (scholarships, awards) reserved for underprivileged people, her argument being that her mother abused her, and in her teens she ended up in foster care. So she’s arguing that this means her background is foster care/abuse/underprivilege. Which a certain chapter of it is, but qua formulated humanoid she’s much more privileged than not, which puts into question the legitimacy of her underprivilege-based goodies.

Further – it certainly matters whether her claims of maternal abuse, amounting to broken bones, blocked breathing passages, and other nightmares, are true. All of the charges against her mother were dropped, and it looks as though hospital records list injuries much less nightmarish than the ones Fierceton claims.


One thing Fierceton has going against her is America’s really rampant culture of self-aggrandizing fakes, like UD‘s erstwhile colleague, Jessica Krug, an upper middle class Jewish woman from Kansas City who got all sorts of academic goodies by pretending to be a poor black person. Thanks to scads of identity scammers, we all have a vivid category into which to place Fierceton, whether this placement is in fact fair. Institutions are also hypersensitive – given this cultural background of scamming – to the possibility of being exploited by fakers, and in the case of Fierceton they have indeed started to come down hard on her. She is suing in response, so we will eventually know where at least some of the facts lie.

Margaret Soltan, January 12, 2022 11:03AM
Posted in: STUDENTS

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8 Responses to “A reader writes to ask if I’ve noticed the developing Mackenzie Fierceton story.”

  1. Rita Says:

    But you’re missing the best part of the story: how the institution now so concerned about this fraud abetted it with its own self-congratulating rhetoric about its philanthropic mission to elevate first-generation students. How many first-generation students does a place like UPenn really help? Welllll, if you conveniently define it as “those who are the first in their families to ‘pursue higher education at an elite institution,’” or as those who “have a strained or limited relationship with the person(s) in your family who hold(s) a bachelors degree,” then you can suddenly have a whole lot of them.

    Imagine the college essay: “All my life, I have lived in the shadows, wearing mid-market clothing brands and being driven around in a minivan, but I vowed I would take a different road from the one that led my parents to this soul-deadening middle-classness. I resolved to do all that was in my power to avoid this dark fate. They made the fatal mistake of going to Penn State. But I, I would be the first in my family to attend UPenn! I would break the cycle of bourgeois mediocrity my family has trapped me in and RISE, to senior partner at JP Morgan and a 63rd floor condo on the Upper West Side. And then, when I reach these heights, I will give back, devoting myself to helping others in my squalid position overcome the barriers of structural injustice, so that all children of non-elite college graduates may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

    Hard to see how this case is not a direct and logical outcome of the absurd pretense of universities like Penn to be simultaneously elite and also our greatest engines of equality.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Wonderful, Rita, and instantly reminded me of this great essay, inspired by my fellow ‘thesdan Brett Kavanaugh’s notorious self-description as someone who grew up on very mean streets.

    When the rich world rewards beyond everyone’s wildest dreams a hard-luck story, the hard-luck story competition pumps up until you birth Jessica Krug. The poverty has to be grindingly, grotesquely lurid; the child abuse has to be what Fierceton claims – total body/mind trauma.

    So maybe you do a variant of what Penn seems to have done: You dumb the thing down to the point where you define underprivileged as Margaret Rapp growing up in Bethesda — but only one of her parents has elite degrees (though maybe Penn’s admission cte would consider Hopkins non-elite: ‘Stanford’s 2017 endowment was $24.8 billion, Yale’s was $27.2 billion, while Johns Hopkins had $3.8 billion‘. Now that’s impoverished.) and sometimes she tussles with her mother, who attended but did not graduate from dinky Mount Saint Agnes College in Baltimore WHICH NO LONGER EXISTS. Margaret struggled at a large public high school (Walter Johnson: named for a baseball player!) and took secretarial jobs in Bethesda over the summers…

    But Ivies have a set of serious problems when it comes to attracting and retaining truly underprivileged people. Many such people who are rational enough to look at places like Princeton with their eyes open know right away what it took poor Walter Kirn ages to know: a place like Princeton is dominated by super-rich, obliviously super-privileged people who spend all day making fellow students who actually … now that you mention it … CANNOT join the rest of you in your semester break trip to Gstaad feel really really bad. REALLY bad.

    This isn’t to say that such schools fail utterly to find and keep non-rich, non-elite types. I know of a Yalie who came from modest – though not impoverished – roots and did brilliantly in the environment that school provided. Not to mention Michelle Obama. But it is to say that – as you point out – these schools continue to be dominated by the children not only of the very rich, but sometimes the undeserving rich, like Charles Kushner’s dim spawn who with a multimillion dollar gift to the school from dad got into Harvard. Legacies, huge financial gifts, political string-pulling… and, if you’re willing to settle for Georgetown, huge payoffs to the tennis coach… And hey – you can even get into Penn itself with a rich enough father – don’t forget Trump pardonee Philip Esformes!

    PS: After I read our comments to Mr UD (Harvard, ’72), he began narrating his own hard luck story.

  3. Rita Says:

    As the Chronicle article says, the whole gambit to turn UPenn into a leader in “FGLI” recruitment was initiated by the president, who “was herself a first-generation, low-income student.” This lady went to college at a time when 5% of the adult population had a BA, so the odds of being “FGLI” at any given college in 1970 were probably well over 50%. (Though, to be fair to her, they were probably lower at Radcliffe, her alma mater. So it makes sense that her influence would have worked its way into UPenn’s understanding of the unique psycho-social barriers posed by being a first-gen student at an elite school, rather a just any old plebeian college.)

    I’m not sure the “rich kids dominate everyone at elite schools” is quite right though. I really don’t think the situation is so bad there for regular middle class (“upper middle class”? “affluent”?) students. There are certainly these super-rich people and they have varying degrees of influence over campus social life, but they’re not the majority anywhere (enormous wealth is by definition a limited good), and they can be quite effectively ignored if you’re a serious student or someone with interests beyond partying.

    The problems for the “truly underprivileged” mostly don’t come from being bullied or ostracized by the super-rich, but from problems from home that clamor for their attention and make it hard to focus so intensively on college life the way everyone else does. These are often the most competent people in their families to manage crises b/c they’re good at talking with authority figures, and now they’re far away at some place totally detached from reality while their siblings are getting their power cut off b/c somebody failed to pay a bill and shouldn’t they be home helping instead of reading 19th C. Irish poetry? Jared Kushner seems like a distant problem.

    I’m not sure that elite colleges should even attempt to solve this kind of problem, or make it their mission to be the prime destination for the homeless youth of America. What they excel at is educating middle class kids, and they should stick to that. The irony of all this is that by claiming to be an engine of equality and social justice, they have to pretend that they are doing something completely different from educating middle class kids, so the middle class kids are forced to tie themselves into knots to demonstrate that they’re not themselves but rather other selves that have suffered elaborate tortures to be worthy of admission (different from the actual tortures they’ve suffered, like grinding for the SAT for 20 hrs/wk). Then, when the university fails to find enough authentic torture victims to demonstrate success at its new mission, it has to fudge the definitions of simple concepts to feign success, so it redefines the regular experiences of its middle class students as actual torture.

    And the final result is that Margaret Rapp of Bethesda now has to turn her life into a lurid tale of woe at the hands of primitively-educated parents w/ only half a degree, who regularly tried to murder her (by not letting her take their car on the weekend), all so that she can go to Northwestern, where she would’ve gone anyway 40 yrs ago just by sending in a transcript and some test scores. Even better, now, once she gets there, Northwestern will inform her that everything she invented in her essay is actually true, because the suffering of the underprivileged includes the average experience of growing up in Bethesda, so she can rest her uneasy conscience about her previous self-invention and turn it into her actual self-conception. I prefer the world in which universities admit normal Margaret Rapp and leave her to her own initiative, rather than cultivate the psychopathic narcissist version of her and then validate it.

  4. TAFKAU Says:

    As Rita notes, elite private universities are decidedly *not* engines of upward mobility. They exist to punch the tickets of the sons and daughters of the upper class and to help a limited number of kids who were born on third base to navigate the last 90 feet to home plate. That is, their effective function is to preserve and even exacerbate class inequalities.

    Unfortunately, that’s not much of a selling point in any country, but especially not one whose legitimating myths center around self-made men and rags-to-riches stories that, in reality, went stale at least two generations ago. Nobody wants to think that by going to work today, they will make the world just a little less fair. So the Ivies, already veritable incubators of liberal guilt, are easy targets for the Fiercetons and Krugs of the world.

    (Penn, in particular, has to feel the urgency of justifying its existence, given that its most famous living graduate is a bloated, inarticulate fascist whose duplicity and ineptitude still threaten to derail American democracy.)

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Part of the problem is the INSANE escalation of wealth among the Ivies. There are serious implications to hoarding and obsessively seeking to grow $53.2 billion dollars in institutional wealth at a school with fewer than 10,000 undergraduate students. Several other schools – not all of them Ivies – are right behind Harvard in terms of the astounding ton of money they’re sitting on.

    So of course the hunt is on for the underprivileged to spend it on, since all of these schools realize these dollar amounts are not great optics – although they must also realize that looked at rationally Harvard could admit 30,000 smart kids with zero funds every year and get nowhere in spending down that sum, since the endowment is also rising insanely fast. I’ve said that in a few years, when Harvard’s wealth reaches $100 billion, people might actually start to notice.

    But this points to the other problem rich kid schools like Penn are up against, and that’s the larger fact of insane wealth inequality here – the almost inconceivable growth of wealth among the American wealthy. Harvard is the Bezos of world universities and must work hard every day to resemble anything anyone would call a university. There are serious tax breaks at stake. Harvard – no shit, man – is a non-profit.

  6. Rita Says:

    Do you think that the bad optics come mainly from how much money these schools are sitting on, or from how their graduates’ subsequent trajectories are perceived? Sure, these schools are filthy rich, but that money is largely unseen by most people except the bits of it that are expended to build fancy facilities and expand the campus footprint, an effect felt only locally. But it seems to me that the main impetus for this Saviors of the Underprivileged posture is the desire to avoid the democratic resentment of the entire country that these schools are consolidating and monopolizing the channels of economic success. If all our graduates go on to be rich, then we must speak the language of upward mobility and say that we are helping the poor become rich. Education is a great equalizer, and we are giving it to more people who wouldn’t otherwise get it.

    Except education is NOT an equalizer. It is a distinguisher. After some basic level of literacy, education will always make people more unequal, and if you tie educational attainment to economic prospects, that inequality will soon be felt in inequalities of wealth. Does it matter whether the institution has an endowment of 50 million or 50 billion, so long as it’s performing this function for the country?

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    But they don’t monopolize economic success: Overwhelmingly, successful capitalists graduate from state schools.

    The deep anger New Haven feels against Yale for being so rich and sharing so little of its wealth with that sad city is increasingly typical of the relationship between schools whose endowment is higher than the GDP of half the world’s economies and the communities that surround them. As I say, I think it’ll take Harvard breaking the $100 billion mark to draw the attention of the larger world to the unconscionable wealth hoarding of that school. Curiously, it’s really been only other Harvard people who have acted on their rage at its massive hoarding: Recall back in 2004 the disgust alumni expressed when they realized the compensation Harvard was giving its money managers. After the New York Times featured their disgust on its front page, Harvard tweaked its compensation system.

    In general I’d say that all obscenely rich (and getting much richer by the minute) universities share the growing problem of trying to look as though they are something other than finishing schools/money machines. Certainly egalitarian outreach, and presidents who talk a good upward mobility game, help; but the relentless rich-get-richer reality of contemporary America is engulfing them …

  8. University Diaries » It’s Rashomon; it’s a Megillah; it’s the mad mad plot of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom… Says:

    […] Mackenzie Fierceton story is a mess. From the word go, no one knows who did what. Did a teenager flee her physically […]

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